Course in Tucson

Tucson, Arizona Course

Dec. 27, 2014-Jan. 7, 2015
THEO 64835 : Buddhist and Christian Visions of the Contemplative Life

Prof. Robert M. Gimello

Course Description: In the fields of comparative theology and the theology of religions, and in the actual conduct of dialogue among religions, it is often held that spiritual practice has greater claim upon our attention than do other elements of religion like doctrine, scripture, ritual performance, institutional organization, history, or even ethics. It is commonly assumed, in other words, that if we are to learn whether or not there can be genuine unity, or harmony, or complementarity among religions — if we are to come to know, for example, whether or not more than one religion may be deemed salvificly efficacious — we must pay special attention to the interior lives of their most esteemed adherents. We may all easily agree that religions differ, sometimes quite markedly, in their metaphysics, their epistemologies, their social and ethical visions, there aesthetic canons, and their various forms of outward behavior, but we are told that if we would know whether such differences are merely superficial, rather than essential, we must look especially to the inner experiences of paragon believers as they pursue practices variously labeled prayer, meditation, or contemplation. Such inner precincts of the religious life, it is maintained, are the final court of judgment on the possibility and validity of unity and concord among religions.

This course will be a comparative exploration of the inner landscapes of two religious traditions — Christianity and Buddhism — that are often chosen for special comparative scrutiny both by those who would insist on fundamental difference or incommensurability between religions and those who see the possibility of the deep interreligious convergence.

The first third of the course will introduce the major methods of Buddhist meditation whereas the second third will treat of exemplary forms of the Christian contemplative life.  Our focus throughout these first two weeks will be chiefly on primary sources — i.e., on translated texts of moderate length drawn from the archives of traditional Buddhism and Christianity. The final third of the course will be given over to consideration of the controversies among modern theologians, contemplatives, and non-theological scholars about the similarities and/or differences between Christian and Buddhist contemplation and about the criteria by which similarity and or difference can be determined.

Readings:  We will read and discuss much of the material included in:

  1. William Harmless, S. J., Mystics (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) — ISBN 978-0-19-530039-0.
  2. Other required readings — selections from both primary and secondary sources — will be provided by the instructor in the form of pdf files.

Students who are entirely new to the study of Buddhism may find it useful to consult in advance, as preparatory or background reading, a general introduction to the religion. For this purpose I especially recommend:

  1. Rupert Gethin. The Foundations of Buddhism (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) — ISBN 0-19-289223-1.  Not quite as good, but still serviceable and a much quicker “read,” is:
  2. Damien Keown. Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1996) — ISBN 0-19-285386-4.


         Requirements: The only formal requirement of the course, part from conscientious and informed participation in class discussions, will be a single paper, on a relevant  topic chosen in consultation with the instructor. The paper should be 20-25 double space pages (i.e., approximately 5,000 to 6,250 words) in length and must be submitted within three weeks of the conclusion of the course.

A detailed syllabus — listing particular meeting topics and dated reading assignments — will be distributed in at least a moth before the course begins.  For further information feel free to contact Prof. Gimello at

Location: Redemptorist Renewal Center in Tucson, Arizona:

All are welcome to attend this course as degree seeking or non-degree seeking students. Students are responsible for paying & arranging travel.  For further information please call the Administrative Assistant for M.Div. Program and M.A Program at 574-631-4256.